I’ve known Michael Cartland for almost as many years as Ryan. He was one of his schoolmates at Ashbury College and later, after Ryan returned to Canada, at the University of Ottawa: a lanky lad, who had grown too fast and too soon. A head taller than Ryan, the two of them looked incongruous together when they marched down the street.
I had lost sight of Michael since that tragic day fourteen years ago until he contacted me twelve years later at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake.
It was shortly after my unfortunate engagement with Elise Hamilton and her York Street Playhouse in Ottawa.
I was sitting in the dressing room removing my make-up when the assistant to the stage manager entered and handed me a bouquet of pink and white roses.
“Dear Mila, I saw you in the show last night,” the card read. “You were wonderful. I’m staying at the Prince of Wales, and I would feel honoured if you were to join me for lunch tomorrow at the hotel. Please call me, no matter how late.” Under his signature, he’d written his cell phone number and a P.S. “I’m here for two more days.”
It was Michael’s good fortune that I felt abysmally blue that night and desperately needed company. My affair with Adam Fitzgerald, the leading male in Elise Hamilton’s spring show had backfired in the most brutal way. I had fallen for Adam, deeply and hopelessly, the moment I set eyes on him. He looked uncannily like Ryan and resembled him in many ways. I clung to Adam, pursued him with an obsession that drove him away. When one month after the closing of the Ottawa show I turned up unannounced at his condo and found him in bed with Carmela Lopez, Elise Hamilton’s Assistant Director, I nearly went berserk. It felt as if I had lost Ryan a second time.
My soul was still raw when Michael’s roses arrived. To have lunch with someone from Ryan’s past―no matter how unattractive he may turn out to be―would be a welcome band-aid for my bruised heart.
I called Michael that evening to thank him for the flowers and to accept his invitation.
“Join me for a nightcap?” His question sounded more like a command. It came unexpectedly, and it took me by surprise.
Michael noticed my hesitation. “I know it’s late. You can make up for lost sleep tomorrow morning, can’t you?”
Yes, I can. But I wasn’t going to tell Michael, although I nearly gave in on account of his voice. It was deep and rich with the kind of mellowness that had a seductive timbre. Somehow the voice didn’t match the vision of the skinny, pale and colourless chap I remembered. I was intrigued but not enough to find out that night. That’s why I cut the conversation short. “Good night, Michael. I’ll see you tomorrow, at noon.”
SPRING FEVER AND BLACK CHOCOLATE (from chapters 4 & 5)
Note: Rehearsals are over. The cast and crew are leaving the theatre to have a drink at the Met, their favourite hangout.
Jeremy glanced at Elise. “Are you coming?” Not tonight. I’m exhausted.” She suppressed a genuine yawn and quickly added when she saw the disappointment in his eyes. “Next time... But don’t leave yet. Allyson, our costumes mistress, asked me to take a couple of measurements for your outfit. So, please...” Elise took a deep breath to finish the sentence, “...take off that bulky sweater.”
“Your wish is my command.” Swiftly, Jeremy pulled the sweater over his head and flung it across the nearest seat in the front row. Legs slightly apart, he held up both arms, feigning surrender. “Anything else to take off? Just say the word!” He grinned his boyish grin as he eyed her, his mouth quirking with renewed amusement. Playfully, he inflated his bare chest, flexed his muscles and raised his chin to look down at her from his great height.
Elise’s heart jumped and began throbbing in the back of her throat.
Stay calm, Elise.
“Turn round.” There was a faint tremor in Elise’s voice as emotion touched her. Being but a couple of feet away from his bare upper body — he must be working out—close to his well toned pecs, his muscular arms, his strong neck, awakened in her a carnal hunger of unparalleled proportions. It made her breath catch in her lungs.
Fortunately, Jeremy had turned and she was no longer under the scrutiny of his probing eyes. But that little voice in her head—the one that’s called Desire—urged and pushed and egged her on to fling her arms around him, to press her hot face against the smooth skin of his back, to plant kisses along his spine—one for each vertebrae—all the way to the curve of his lower back, to rip down his jeans and continue the trail of kisses across each cheek of his small, tight butt.
Her blood pressure jumped to an alarming level as she visualized herself slipping one hand between his legs. Every nerve from her fingertips to her wrist was alive and tingling and her hands became unstable as she guided the measuring tape from his right shoulder to his left.
“Ouch. Your hands are on fire.” Jeremy squirmed. “Stand still!” Exercising utmost willpower, Elise injected a tone of authority into her voice. Under no circumstances must he realize how strongly drawn she still felt to him, how much she wanted him—right now... right here... on the stage... off the stage... anywhere.
Elise! The voice of Desire had changed into the warning voice of Reason. No fooling around with actors! And, least of all with Jeremy. You can’t allow
to be distracted by sexual notions! Take a clinical approach!
“Here, hold the tape.” Elise had walked around Jeremy, handing him the end of the measuring tape, pleased how business-like she sounded. “Keep it in the centre of your chest... across the nipples.” Holding the tape, she walked around him once more, making sure her fingers did not come into contact with his skin.
“Keep holding the tape.” Elise stepped back. She was speaking in her most neutral, controlled tone of voice. “I need to measure your inseam.”
Jeremy held up the end of the tape, looking puzzled and shrugged.
“Come on, Jeremy. No games now. It’s not the first time you’ve been measured for your inseam. Hold the tape close to your crotch.”
“Yes, ma’m!” Jeremy did as he was told.
Elise went down on one knee as she guided the tape alongside his inner leg. “Pull the tape a little higher.”
Again, Jeremy did as he was told.
Elise looked up and, hastily, lowered her gaze again, for the view of the bulge of his erection from her vantage point gave her a white hot jolt, and she feared it might kill the voice of Reason.
Urgently, she scribbled the measurements into her notebook then tugged at the tape. Jeremy let go of its end. It fell to the ground and Elise scooped it into her hands, bunching it up as she rose.
“I want you, Elise.” Jeremy moved close to her, looking her over seductively, his voice low and smooth. “Come home with me.”
Elise straightened her shoulders and cleared her throat, resolved to keep calm. He can’t just waltz back into my life and have sex with me!
“I don’t sleep with my actors!”
“C’mon, Elise. I know you want me too. This is different... you and I... I mean, it’s not that we’re strangers.”
Elise stuffed the measuring tape, the notepad and pencil into her handbag and grabbed her coat. She fetched the keys from the pocket and dangled them in front of his face. “Unless you want to spend the night here, you’d better come with me, ‘cause I’m locking up. So, put that sweater back on and follow me!”
“Okay, your place. That’s fine with me.”
“Jeremy, read my lips! I.Don’t.Sleep.With.My. Actors!”
“I hear you.” He slipped the sweater over his head, ran both hands through his tousled hair and reached for his coat. “Can I at least accompany you to your car?” And, when Elise was slow to reply, he added, in a meek, drawn-out tone of voice, “Ple-e-ase?” He smiled, hopefully. It was the kind of smile that would make any woman’s heart melt.
O God, how can anyone be cross with him? “You can.”
* * *
Temperatures had sunk further. The air was frosty, and the sidewalks were dotted with icy patches. “My car’s at the corner of…” But Elise never finished the sentence. With a cry, she slipped on ice and would have fallen had Jeremy not caught her in time.
“You’d better take my arm, or you’re going to end up smack on your behind.”
Elise felt the strength of his arms around her waist as they encircled her and deposited her squarely back on her feet. “Thanks,” she muttered, then hooked her arm through his. It felt like old times.
She led him to her car and stuck the key into the lock. Jeremy held the door open for her as she slid behind the wheel. He shut the door then tapped at the window. She rolled it down and he bent forward, looking at her, a gleam of hope in his eyes.
“It’s still early. Only nine thirty. What are you going to do when you get home?”
“Have an orgasm while eating Belgian chocolates.”
* * *
Dumbfounded, Jeremy watched the tail-lights of Elise’s car disappear at the end of the road until the dampness of the night began creeping down his neck. He shuddered, pulled up the collar of his coat and hunched his shoulders, as the chill began to spread hot and cold goose bumps down both sides of his spine.
“What a woman!” He shook his head with incredulity and laughed out loud.
Startled, the elderly couple behind him stopped in their tracks then continued in a wide berth around him, looking alarmed, as though he were drunk or disturbed, or both. Had they taken the trouble to ask, he would have confirmed their fears. He was indeed drunk, but with love and admiration, and disturbed on account of being unable to keep his desire under control.
It would not have surprised him had Elise answered, “None of your business!” or “Piss off!” for he would have deserved such a reply. He had behaved in bad taste, first teasing her with the suitcase scene and then, to top it all, trying to get her into bed when she had made it clear that ‘no’ meant ‘no.’ What on earth was he thinking?
Bad move, Jeremy.
It was definitely not a good start to his plan of winning her back. But then, confoundedly, she had answered, “Have an orgasm while eating Belgian chocolates!”... My chocolates! Well, that was a good one, indeed. What was he supposed to make of that? At any rate, he noticed, she had developed a delightful sense of humour—teasing, a little naughty—and he had no objections to that. Nope, none at all.
* * * CLOSE
SUMMER PASSION AND FORBIDDEN FRUIT (from chapter 5)
Adam and Carmela had walked leisurely side by side engaged in light conversation, commenting on the food they’d consumed, the shops and art galleries they’d passed and Carmela’s tasks at the theatre while Elise and Jeremy were abroad.
“Do you need any help?” Adam opened the door for her to step into the car.
“No. I manage quite well.” She lowered herself into the passenger seat and reached for the seat belt. “Thanks for asking.”
Carmela! This was your chance to see him again.
But did she really wish to see him again?
Of course, I do. He makes me feel so good.
She glanced at his handsome profile as he slid into the driver’s seat then turned her head, focusing her eyes on a crack in the pavement.
Yes, yes, yes! I do want to see him again… but not now… when times are better.
If anybody had asked her what she meant by ‘better times,’ she would have been unable to explain. After Emilio had moved out? After a certain period of time had elapsed following his move? After the sale of their house? After the divorce?
Why find an answer to that question now? Now was the time to continue enjoying Adam’s company for the few minutes that remained of their date.
At five to nine the Camaro entered Carmela’s street in Lindenlea. The small residential road lay deserted, all cars off the street and in their driveways or garages, except for a solitary blue Toyota parked in front of her house.
Carmela’s pulse jumped.
What on earth is she doing in the house? I don’t want to see her!
Adam parked behind the Toyota, killed the engine and twisted his upper body toward Carmela, about to reach for her hand. He hesitated, and his brow furrowed as he studied her profile.
Every muscle in Carmela’s face had hardened. Tense and wide-eyed, she was staring at the front door of her house as if danger lurked behind its stained glass panel.
Mystified, Adam followed her glance and saw the cause of her odd behaviour. The front door had been flung open and a short, wide-hipped, large breasted woman with a tightened mouth emerged. He recognized her the minute she began walking down the path toward the blue car.
Carmela nodded. Her eyes narrowed as she watched Susana approach the Toyota, the sight of her filling her with something close to disgust.
“Ouch!” Adam grimaced painfully, as if he’d bitten off the tip of his tongue, then mumbled under his breath, “The woman looks like a bundle of fun.” Something about ‘the woman’ ruffled his feathers. Her frumpy appearance? Her air of misery and discontent? Whatever it was, it made it easy to understand the grim expression on Carmela’s face and her apparent reticence to step out of the car.
And then Susana saw Carmela. And Adam. She slowed down her pace, jutted her head forward, squinting at the windshield of the Camaro. She stopped, raised her head as she inflated her ample chest and glared in Carmela’s direction, the belligerent stance of her body screaming, ‘I knew it!’
Carmela saw the daggers in Susana’s eyes, felt them penetrate the windshield and pierce her chest. They also pierced the foundation of her moral code. In an instant her well-guarded façade crumbled to dust. In that split second, as the foundation broke apart, the noise of the battle that had gone on within her went quiet.
To hell with morals… with convention… double standards.
She turned to Adam. He was leaning toward her, his right hand resting on the back of her seat, his eyes still fixed on Susana.
“Kiss me!” Her voice, calm yet urgent, caught him off guard and he pulled back, glancing down at her with astonishment.
Kiss? Seriously? In full view of that ferocious looking woman?
But when she reached up to his face and cupped it in both hands, drawing it closer to hers while saying, “Now!” he needed no further encouragement.
Instantly, his mouth captured hers and he drank in the raspberry sweetness of her lips in a long, searing kiss.
His kiss, smothering and demanding, was divine ecstasy. It sang through Carmela’s veins, drugged her senses.
“Adam,” she broke the kiss, placed her index finger across his mouth, her voice a breathless command. “Take me home with you. Please. Right now!”
THE HEART ASKS NO QUESTION NOVELLA SERIES
Now, with my mother and grandmother both gone, I suddenly felt orphaned and alone, abandoned by the two women who should've showered me with love and affection instead of leaving me to fend for myself throughout emotional ups and downs.
No wonder I was a relationship failure. If at least there had been a strong father figure in my life.
"He was a married man," my mother responded in her usual laconic way to my question. After that, I refrained from bringing the subject up again.
I returned to the kitchen table, sat and resumed the reading.
My mother had met my father at Karin's wedding.
May 10, 1967
He was the most gorgeous man I'd ever seen, a cousin of the groom, the entry began, and I fell for his film-star good looks. He made me feel important and for once I wasn't invisible. Of all the women at the wedding party, he had chosen me. In my innocence, I didn't know the difference between a playful, flirtatious game and a masteful seduction. I believed every word he said. And so, while Karin and her husband were on the third floor of the hotel getting ready to drive to Niagara to their honeymoon suite, I was in a suite on the second floor, anxious to lose my virginity. He was surprised to find me still a virgin at the age of twenty-seven, and he hesitated, nearly sent me away. But I begged him to take me, to teach me.
In the end, he relented.
He was gentle and tender, and I only felt a slight discomfort as he entered me fully. Sensing him inside me was the closest I've ever felt to any person in my life. The sensation of intimacy was so exquisite I wanted to keep him, just for that alone, for the rest of my life.
But it wasn't to be. He had neglected to tell me that he had a wife and a new-born child in Halifax.
I raised my head and glanced out the window, somewhat dizzy and disturbed. It was difficult to fathom that these words had been written by the aloof and distant woman who had brought me up in an almost frigid way.
Had she ever experienced intimacy again? Was this man, my father, the only man in her life? It appeared to be so, for there was no reference ever again to a man, and I had never seen her go out on a date, unless she had always been discreet about it. For her sake, I hoped for the latter. But it was hard to tell because the entries stopped in 1968, the year I was born.
AUTUMN DESIRE AND ROUGH DIAMONDS (from chapter 4)
"A drink at the Met?" Sacha strode to the exit, swinging his backpack over his shoulder. The last of the students had left five minutes ago, and he'd waited until she'd buttoned up her dress.
"No time. Got work to do at home."
It was a lie. Under any other circumstances, she would have gladly joined him for a drink. But after their romp, it was better to put this incident in the past and establish new boundaries.
"Can I give you a lift?" He held the door open for her. If he was piqued by her curt response, he didn't let on.
"No need. My car's in the garage across the street."
"Mine, too. I'll walk with you."
The School of Art was located in a historic building in the ByWard Market. There was no elevator. They took the stairs to the ground floor, and Pauline found herself saying, "I hope the incident in your office won't create trouble for you." The truth was, she wasn't too concerned about Sacha’s reputation. She just needed some words to fill the silence.
"Naw." Sacha shrugged. "A bit of a gossip, perhaps, if the guy can't keep his trap shut."
"Not a scandal?"
"Definitely not! I didn't seduce any of my students, did I? Besides, you and I had fun by mutual consent."
He stopped walking. They had arrived at the second-floor landing, and he held her back by the arm, drew her close to his chest.
"I wouldn't mind a repeat performance of that mutual consent. Not in my office. How about in my studio? Tonight?" He saw her hesitation and added, "Tomorrow?"
Cripes! Tongue-tied, Pauline stared at Sacha. She knew it was going to be a question of time before he would ask her to bed. But she had underestimated him, had not reckoned with his eagerness, and the timing of his proposition took her by surprise.
She inhaled deeply. The moment to deal with the consequences of her folly had arrived. She had to think fast to get smoothly out of this mess.
Help! She sent out a plea to any force in the universe that was willing to listen. Let it be easy. Please.
"Sacha," she spoke slowly, carefully weighing each word. "Please understand. What we did in your office was sex, something you can get from any of the women in your life."
"Not at all. But it'll have to remain what it was. Sex. A one-time fling. No more."
"What's wrong with a repeat?"
"I don't believe you." Sacha's grin was smug, self-satisfied. "I know you want me. More than you're willing to admit."
Pauline shrivelled a little at his reaction. Damn it. What arrogance. This was going nowhere! He wasn't taking 'no' for an answer. The whole thing was getting complicated.
Frustrated, she clenched her jaw and pulled herself out of his grasp.
"You've heard what I said!" Her voice was icy cold. She was angry—angry with herself for not controlling her sexual appetite, for not listening to that voice in her head that was now saying, I told you so! To make matters worse, he might walk away from his commitment to her and the set design team.
Suddenly, she no longer cared whether he told her to fuck off. At this very moment, she wanted nothing but to get away from him, into the open air. The night of the whip flashed through her mind. Could he turn violent? They were alone on the staircase. No witnesses. No proof, if he were to hit her.
Alarmed at the thought, she stepped around him to descend the stairs.
Red-faced, Sacha scoffed. She might pretend indifference. But he didn't believe a word she'd said, and he wasn't going to argue about it when he could prove her wrong.
In one move, he grabbed her by the shoulders and whirled her around. Within seconds he had her up against the wall, holding her prisoner, her ass pressing against his thighs.
"Shut up! You liked it an hour ago!" He ducked down, aggressively plunging his mouth to the base of her lower neck. She tasted good—a little salty from the perspiration of their tryst—a huge turn-on. It added fuel to his burning desire. Hungry for her, he sucked her skin, pressing her with force against the wall, one hand raising her dress and sliding between her legs.
He felt her struggle, wiggle her buttocks as she tried to free her arms that were caught between the wall and her breasts. Her fight escalated his arousal. Excitement heated his groin, turning him more persistent, more daring. In a heartbeat, his kiss turned rough. He dug his teeth into her flesh, bit her hard.
She gulped, stifled a cry.
The pain had shot through her as if he'd lashed her with his whip. Lips pressed together in a thin line, she forced herself to remain calm.
He's a bully! The pain yielded quickly to fury, and fury turned into strength. What would Angus and Reid have advised her to do if she'd complained to them about yet another bully, a bully of a different kind?
Stay calm. Be smart. Outwit him.
Trusting her intuition, she stopped the struggle.
"That's better." Sacha’s breath was hot against her neck as he exhaled with satisfaction. He’d won the battle. He’d broken down her barrier. She was melting in his arms. That was the way he liked his women: struggling lionesses at first, surrendering lambs right after. He relaxed and eased the pressured against her buttocks. His hand moved from her clitoris to her breasts.
Her arms were free.
With one swift move, she jammed her elbow into the side of his ribs and whirled around, glaring at him, eyes blazing.
He released her as he jerked back, the surprise in his face turning into a grin of amusement. "I like a good fight. Makes you sexier than hell."
"Listen, Sacha..." She paused to take a breath. For an instant, she toyed with the idea of running down the stairs. But she dismissed the idea as soon as it surfaced. It would be pointless. He would catch up with her in no time, and then the nastiness would start all over again, perhaps get uglier and out of control. It was better to keep him engaged in a conversation for as long as it would take to find an opportune moment to slip away. Sooner or later, someone was bound to show up on the stairs.
"Let's be—" reasonable she'd meant to say, raising her hand in a conciliatory gesture before he interrupted.
"I love resistance." His hand shot out, gripped her wrist.
A door opened and slammed shut on the third floor.
Sacha let go of her wrist and stepped back.
A heartbeat later, Pauline bolted down the stairs.
The last she heard before reaching the exit was a male voice. "Ah, Sacha, there you are. We were looking for you. Have you got a minute to come back upstairs? We need to tie up some loose ends for the vernissage on Saturday night."
The moment Pauline had closed the door to her apartment, she kicked off her flats, tossed her handbag on the nearest chair and poured herself a Scotch, straight, two fingers deep, then took a good swallow and headed for the balcony. On her way, she stopped in front of the large mirror that hung on the dining room wall.
"Shit." She frowned, pressing her lips together in a thin line.
The wound, as she'd begun to call it while inspecting the damage in the car, was looking worse. She ran her fingertips across the red, small plum-shape blemish and flinched. The area was swollen, and a chill ran down her spine at the feel of the lump that was tender and sore. The skin was not broken but showed the telltale signs of a bite.
"Bloody hell!" She cursed. "Looks like I've been attacked by a rat!" And a rat he was, she determined, as she carried the tumbler outside.
At four thirty, the afternoon was still bright and warm, and she sat in the shadowy space under the sun umbrella, looking across the low-rise rooftops of Lowertown toward Parliament Hill.
Twice her landline rang. She didn't respond to the calls. Her cell phone was in her purse and switched off. She wanted no interruptions while sipping her Scotch; no interference while gathering her wits in a moment of tranquility and peace.
She closed her eyes and leaned back in the armchair, positioning a pillow under her head.
What was I thinking?
And, there it was, the voice in her head that knew all the right answers. Should've kept your brain in neutral gear! Legs crossed. Eyes lowered.
Sure, she was aware of all that. But it wasn't easy standing naked in front of a class of art students and their smirking teacher. There was a disturbing masculine aura about Sacha. She had been horny this morning. And she'd lost her control. End of discussion!
Fed up with the voice in her head, she rose and returned to the liquor cabinet in the kitchen to top up the Scotch. She’d always been a sexually unapologetic woman, and she wasn't going to find excuses now whether she'd done right or wrong.
Granted, being caught in Sacha's office was embarrassing. But she wasn't caught in flagrante with someone else's man. Right? And, if that guy got his jollies while watching Sacha’s naked butt in action, so be it. Good for him.
Whether she and Sacha could still work together as a team as though it were business as usual, was another question. She wasn't going to lose any sleep over it right now as the answer to that question would most likely reveal itself within a couple of days.
The phone rang again. The caller identification showed an unknown number. She shrugged, took a sip of whisky and walked into the den. She sat at the desk by the window, opened her laptop and switched it on
Among a dozen messages, two caught her attention—Elise's confirmation of tomorrow's theatre meeting at noon at the Met, and a couple of lines from Sacha:
"Pauline, I tried to call you. I behaved like a jerk this afternoon. Not in my office, but on the staircase. I'm sorry. To make up for my bad behaviour, I would like to invite you—no strings attached—to a vernissage on Saturday evening at the School of Art and to the VIP reception. I hope you'll accept. Call me."
Pauline read the message twice. Doesn't sound too contrite to me. Calls himself a jerk, which he is. We-ell, maybe half a jerk, because he apologized. Still, half a jerk is still a jerk, no matter how you look at it.
Staring at the screen, she took several sips of Scotch, the palm of her free hand nursing the bruise on her neck.
For a moment, she mulled over an appropriate response. The thought of attending a social event with Sacha had no appeal to her. He would get the wrong idea, even though he promised to behave. No strings attached? What a joke! Besides, she wasn't going to parade that hickey at a VIP party in her one and only low-cut little black dress.
Forget it, Sacha Clermont!
She took another sip, put the tumbler down then moved her hand over the mouse to direct the cursor to the little garbage can. She hesitated.
On the other hand, she needed him—not for sex but her set design.
Acknowledging the unfortunate truth, she sighed as her fingers scampered over the keys:
"Sorry. Can't make it on Saturday night." A white lie was better than not responding at all. Must keep the door open.
With a click of the mouse, she sent the message then reached for her Scotch. Feeling somewhat light-headed, she leaned back in her chair and emptied the tumbler in one swig.